“I always make Daddy sad” – Noa

That is not something that any parent wants to hear. This was my daughter, Noa (8), just a few weeks ago. She was crying and eventually Rialette, my wife, got it out of her. She was crying because she thought that no matter what she does she always makes me sad.

That was tough.

Dealing with mental illness, and depression is super hard just by yourself, the impact it has on one’s family is exponentially more difficult to deal with.

It’s all my fault

Noa, lives in her imagination, a magical world, she is singing most of time, loves reading and making up stories (she is into monsters at the moment). Noa, as many kids I believe at some point, have a magical worldview i.e. they believe that everything that happens in their world, from it raining, them getting sick,  to daddy being sad are caused by them as if they have a magical power to make everything happen. They are the centre of their world, and they cause all events, good and bad, in it.  For Noa and for Luther, I have to deconstruct things, help her to see the real causes, and help them deal with it and do something about it. I have to approach both of them very differently, with the same intent. I have to continually keep the dialogue going, it is not a once off conversation.

How do I talk to my kids about depression?

So here is how I talk to, and help Noa deal with it:

  1. I’m super honest and practical, in a way she can understand. I tell her, that daddy’s brain doesn’t always release enough happy stuff, it’s like being sick.
  2. And I need to take care of myself, take my medicine, eat healthy, and exercise.
  3. I stress that it is not her fault, and that I am responsible for my own happiness as she is for hers.
  4. I explain that sometimes it’s difficult for me to deal with a high stress situation, and I need to leave the room and be alone for a while.
  5. and again.. it’s not her fault. I need to reset my brain.
  6. I always accept any flowers, drawings or letters that she brings to help make me feel better.

Luther, my 6 year old boy, on the other hand is another story.

He doesn’t communicate as much as Noa, he is more of an introvert. I, we, have learnt to watch his actions closely, in what state does he leave  his room, what is he choosing to wear, play with etc. We have learnt to read those signs to gage his mood. And in a way, we have to communicate with him, with not just words, but also our actions, body language, and spaces. In essence I communicate with him the same message as I do with Noa, that it’s not his fault, that I am responsible for my own happiness as he is for his, but I communicate it in a way that he understands.

Teaching them how to deal with emotions.

The larger story we need to create for our kids is that we need to help them value and deal with all their emotions. Many adults are simply victims of the tide of emotions that wash over us everyday, we just react to whatever mood has taken us from wherever it has taken us spending our days being dragged along by this uncontrollable force called ’emotion’.

1. Label your feelings.

When you label your feelings you can begin to deal with them, this is an important aspect to understand when you first ask yourself, ‘how do I talk to my kids about depression?’

The ability to label your feelings is neccessary for all of us. What am I actually feeling? Mad, angry, happy, frustrated, sad, lonely, depressed? Each emotion calls for  a different response. And, once you have named it, it is separate from you. Why do you think the villains in fairy tales often keep their names a secret? There is truth in the power of naming. Naming boxes and controls something. And that is what you need with your emotions.

So to help our kids, especially Luther, we put up a little chart of emojis, so they can point to how they are feeling. Then we ask a second question, that deepens the control, where do you feel it? Is it a tightness in your chest, or a hollow feeling in  your tummy?

How do you feel? Where do you feel it?

2. All emotions are good.

Yes, even being sad is good for you. Emotion are part of our make-up and shouldn’t be denied. To much of our culture and traditions tell us not be a certain way, ‘boys don’t cry’ ‘nice girls don’t get angry’ and so on. This is of course utter crap. Emotions need to be acknowledge and dealt with with wisdom, not swept under the rug.

3. The table wasn’t naughty

Have you ever seen someone punish a table or chair when a kid walks into it? ‘Naughty table!’. I can’t stand that. It’s not a naughty table, you need to watch where you are going. How many adults do you know that blame all their problems and pain on naughty ‘tables’? It’s never their fault or responsibility, ‘I’m angry because you made me angry!’, no you made yourself angry.

It’s your choice.

We want to teach our kids to take responsibility for their actions, and their emotions. I never blame inanimate objects, and I try to never label external circumstances as either good or bad (some stoicism  coming through there I suppose).

I heard something similar from Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy, say on the Tim Ferriss Show that whenever there is a storm he will tell his son to look at the beautiful rainy day, and they need to go and play outside.

Weather isn’t good or bad, it’s just weather.

How do I talk to my kids about depression? Well in the same way I talk to them about all emotion, I try to teach them to deconstruct, to find the cause, to re-cognise, to voice, and to take responsibility for themselves.

Your Turn

I would love to hear how you deal with telling your kids about emotions and mental health, please post in the comments below.

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